Suicide copycats

Two suicides by train in May and June at Palo Alto’s Gunn High had parents and students freaked out.  A suicide prevention forum was held. That night, a third Gunn student walked to the railroad tracks, but his mother grabbed him, a motorist stopped to help and the boy was saved.

At about 7:45 p.m. on Thursday — at the same time members of the Palo Alto community were meeting at a teen suicide forum — the 17-year-old boy left his house upset and distraught. Worried about her son’s mental state, his mother followed him, and found him at the tracks on East Meadow Drive — the same area where Gunn High School student Sonya Raymakers, 17, stepped in front of a train Tuesday night and died.

The boy’s mother began arguing with him and a motorist saw her struggling with her son and stopped to help. At the mother’s request, the motorist called 911 and officers arrived as the boy was walking to the tracks. Dispatchers, meanwhile, notified Caltrain who stopped the train and the boy was restrained and taken to a hospital for psychiatric observation.

Comments on the San Jose Mercury News story blame schools for cutting the arts and athletics to focus on teaching reading and math basics. Others blame Gunn High’s academic stress: Getting into a top college is a priority for many students and their parents.

But Gunn High has a full slate of arts and sports programs.  The second suicide victim, Raymakers, had no need to be stressed. She was weeks away from graduation and headed to New York University to study design. Palo Alto Weekly reports:

Raymakers was heavily involved in theater, working in costume-design, and for years had been involved in creative writing. She won first place in the Palo Alto Weekly’s annual short-story contest for her tale “Nighthawk” when she was in the sixth grade at JLS Middle School.

The Oracle, Gunn’s student newspaper, featured her in an article published March 16 about how she designed her own clothes and jewelry.

Her Facebook page lists nearly 370 friends.

Less has been reported about Jean-Paul Blanchard, a 16-year-old junior who stepped in front of a train in May.  But his friends didn’t think he was depressed.

I live not far from Gunn. My daughter was graduated from Palo Alto High, the rival school in the district.  My congregation’s building is going to be the site of Sonya’s memorial service.

Why do adolescents with minor problems — or no problems at all, as far as others can see — choose to end their lives? I don’t understand.

About Joanne


  1. Andromeda says:

    “no problems at all, as far as others can see

    Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I say this because I was an extremely depressed adolescent whose problems were not generally apparent, or at least not in their full depth — I was generally pleasant when interacting with others, had no discipline problems, a superb academic record, etc. And I was utterly miserable, in large part because of things that other people would not view as problems of that nature. Lucky for me I had a strong self-protective instinct, succeeded in just enough of that self-protection, and had helpful parents — but I think that makes me very lucky indeed.

    And it’s teenagers, remember. Practically all the emotions are more intense, and there’s less life experience to give perspective (I think especially at intense, college-oriented high schools, where students can really live in a bubble and have absolutely no idea of life outside it).

  2. SuperSub says:

    We had a senior die due to an infection this year and this single event effectively shut down school for a week. On top of that, the student’s locker routinely had 10-20 other students standing vigil at it for weeks after.

    Not to seem too jaded, but the student became the most popular student in school. Freshmen and sophomores who admitted that they had no clue who the student was would break into tears and hysterics because of the death.

    I’m not seeing that this fully explains it, but to a student with depression, death could seem like the one chance to actually feel valued by their peers. Depression is rather insiduous… no matter how much positive feedback or love a person receives from others, it is all muted by the depression. A colorful world becomes gray, and no joy is ever felt.

  3. Teens are intensely self-absorbed and drawn to any sort of drama.

    I think you need to revisit Romeo & Juliet, Joanne. Not my favorite play, but as usual, Shakespeare has it nailed.

  4. In Hawaii, juvenile hospitalizations (1987-1997) for human-induced trauma fall in summer, when school is not in session.

    “The issue of social skills. One edition of Home School Researcher, Volume 8, Number 3, contains two research reports on the issue of social skills. The first finding of the study by Larry Shyers (1992) was that home-schooled students received significantly lower problem behavior scores than schooled children. His next finding was that home-schooled children are socially well adjusted, but schooled children are not so well adjusted. Shyers concludes that we are asking the wrong question when we ask about the social adjustment of home-schooled children. The real question is why is the social; adjustment of schooled children of such poor quality?”

    “The second study, by Thomas Smedley (1992), used different test instruments but comes to the same conclusion, that home-educated children are more mature and better socialized than those attending school.” …p. 277
    “12. So-called ‘school phobia’ is actually more likely to be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependancy is a largely unrecognized mental health problem”….p.281
    Roland Meighan, “Home-based Education Effectiveness Research and Some of its Implications”, Educational Review, Vol. 47, No.3, 1995.

    “…It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a clasroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking. (DfID, 2000, pp 12, 13)” Quoted in Clive Harber, “Schooling as Violence”, p. 10, Educatioinal Review, V. 54, #1.

    “…(M)any well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents’ developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline…”(Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education, Stanford University), Kohn, “Constant Frustration and Occasional Violence”, American School Board Journal, September 1999.

    “Violence at school is a prevalent problem. According to a national survey of school proncipals (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1998), over 200,000 serious fights or physical attacks occurred in public schools during the 1996-1997 school year. Serious violent crimes occurred in approximately 12% of middle schools and 13% of high schools. Student surveys (Kann et al, 1995) indicate even higher rates of aggressive behavior. Approximately 16.2% of high school students nationwide reported involvement in a physical fight at school during a 30-day period, and 11.8% reported carrying a weapon on school property (Kann et al, 1995).”

    “Research on victims of violence at school suggests that repeated victimization has detrimental effects on a child’s emotional and social development (Batsche & Knoff, 1995; Hoover, Oliver, & Thomson, 1993; Olweus, 1993). Victims exhibit higher levels of anxiety and depression, and lower self-esteem than non-victims (eg., Besag, 1989; Gilmartin, 1987; Greenbaum, 1987; Olweus, 1993). Karen Brockenbrough, Dewey G. Cornell, Ann B. Loper, “Aggressive Attitudes Among Victims of Violence at School”, Education and the Treatment of Children, V. 25, #3, Aug., 2002.

    “Results showed that the over-representation of Black males that has been cited consistently in the literature begins at the elementary school level and continues through high school. Black females also were suspended at a much higher rate than White or Hispanic females at all three school levels.” Linda M. Raffaele Mendez, Howard M. Knoff, “Who Gets Suspended From School and Why: A Demographic Analysis”, Education and the Treatment of Children V. 26, #1, Feb. 2003.

  5. The parents blame anything and everything–but themselves! Lifesaving drugs like Accutane have been restricted because of parents grasping at straws when an event like this happens.

    So now they blame lack of art and music classes? Don’t make this a double tragedy by confiscating more of my income to go to the school district.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    The police have now stationed police cars at every level crossing in Palo Alto.

  7. Justin Snider says:

    One reason teenagers commit suicide at higher rates than adults is because they’re often too young to realize it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

  8. Anonymous 102 says:

    You note that Raymaker had some positive-looking things going on in her life, and then you ask “Why do adolescents with minor problems — or no problems at all, as far as others can see — choose to end their lives? I don’t understand.”

    I think your question illustrates one reason that problems can feel so big in some people’s lives. ‘Come on, how could you have serious painful problems, you’re involved in theater arts and some other creative stuff and you’re scheduled to go to NYU soon.’ That judgment is very superficial and completely irrational. Just because you haven’t seen the problems, doesn’t mean you should simply assume that they must be minor. Does a person have to conform to some *special stereotype* of ‘teenager with problems’ in order to be allowed to perhaps have genuine problems?

    I have also known at least one person who wasn’t *allowed* to have problems–if that person ever acknowledged a problem even to try to do something about it, it was guaranteed that a co-participant in the person’s problems would react in ways that would make the problems even bigger!

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    To elaborate on what Anonymous 102 said, imagine you’re a successful high school student but you feel lousy. You’ve done the things you’re supposed to do. If you let up, let your grades slip, drop some of the activities, you’ll feel worse. It seems like there’s a down side but no up side. So contra Justin Snider’s wise old saying, it seems like a very permanent problem. If it can only get worse, why not end it?

  10. I wonder to what degree the nihilistic worldview that dominates the public school system factors into these tragedies. All through school they are taught that there is no right or wrong, that they’re destroying the planet, that white Americans are the cause of all the world’s problem, etc., etc. Even for the high-achieving student this must create a huge psychological burden. Add to that the ugly social hierarchy they must navigate in school coupled with the laws and social norms preventing them from doing much meaningful work…life would seem pretty bleak.

  11. Tracy W says:

    I understand that some studies have found that news of a suicide makes other suicides more likely. The mental process appears to be that suicide becomes a socially-viable option once one person has done it within a social circle. In this case, it’s suicide by train.

    And then there’s the mystery that the suicide rate falls when things are really terrible, eg during wars. Apparently giving people a real crisis creates meaning in life.